Navy shows off supersonic railgun, fires test shots

It can blast rounds at 5,600 mph, nail targets located over 100 miles away and may be aboard battleships within the next decade.

It can blast rounds at 5,600 mph, nail targets located over 100 miles away and may be aboard battleships within the next decade.

It's called the electromagnetic railgun. And last week, naval researchers moved a step closer to delivering a battle-ready weapon as engineers successfully fired a prototype launcher at a test facility. The initial test kicked off a two-month long evaluation of the 32-megajoule test model, which arrived on Jan. 30. Built by military contractor BAE Systems, the prototype looks more like a working naval weapon compared to previous experimental lab-style launchers. General Atomics, another contractor, is also building a second launcher, scheduled for delivery in April. Previously, the Office of Naval Research relied upon laboratory-built systems to advance the technology.

Navy officials hope to eventually have a game-changing weapon that can intercept missiles with an unparalleled combination of long-range accuracy and velocity. Initially proposed as part of the Reagan-era “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, electromagnetic railgun technology has the potentially for other non-military applications such as launching satellites and space shuttles or even help avert a doomsday scenario by taking out asteroids on a collision course toward earth.

Here's a brief explanation of how it works:

You can basically think of an electric rail gun as a really big electrical circuit. It consists of a power source, two conducting rails running parallel to each other and, in between them, a piece of conductive metal known an armature that houses the round. To fire a round, a powerful electrical current at a magnitude of about a million amps is sent flowing through the positive conducting rail, through the armature and back towards the power source in a semi-circular motion to generate an electromagnetic field. The force generated by the electromagnetic field is what causes the round to launch at such high velocity.

With the prototype launcher, engineers fired low-energy test shots in preparation for more intensive trial runs at 20 megajoules and 32 megajoules. “The test series will characterize the gun’s performance by shooting several rounds through the barrel at various energy levels to fully exercise the capabilities of the prototype,” said Ellis.

After evaluation is completed, the next step is to develop thermal management systems for both the launcher and pulsed power to enable increased firing rates of up to 10 rounds per minute. The navy has contracted BAE and General Atomics to design the next-generation thermally managed launcher.

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